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Why Do You Ask?

From asking questions that require an answer To asking questions that require a conversation.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Appalling Conference Topic

I get this email invitation the other day, and I begin to think, our problem is not technology, it is a mindset that pits adults against students. 'Students are the enemy" and should be treated as such should be the theme of the conference. I'm disgusted that a company (Securiant) exists, but even more disgusted that an ETTC (not ours) would host such a conference. Shame on these bullies!

Here's the invite:

My Network vs. MySpace: Beating students at their own game

Today’s tech-savvy students enjoy taking risks and have easy access to negative content. Richard J.B. Campbell of Securiant will discuss how K-12 organizations can address inappropriate web content and the explosion of social websites like MySpace and YouTube while effectively securing their networks with a limited staff and budget.

Don’t miss your opportunity to hear from an expert and innovator in the education network security industry!
I'm betting he is an experrt of fear motivation, and an innovator of nothing. I will keep my thoughts short, because I could begin using inappropriate language. First, one who believes it is the educators task to "Beat students at their own game" is unworthy of an educator's attention. It is not a contest or sporting event. It is education. Students are never our enemy. Second, with someone who has the attitude that students are the enemy, why would I ever want him to tell me what is and is not appropriate. His views on life are warped. Third, I doubt that Securiant, or it's "innovators," has any idea about the positives of social networking and the advent and advantage of publishing content for the world. This could be the greatest educational revolution in the history of the world, but... This company has not innovated, they have merely joined the diatribe of spreading fear in the education community because we are willing to spend too much money because we shirk our responsibility of learning about the nature and benefit of emerging technologies we refuse to understand.

Again I ask, when will the student's future take precedence over a computer network? It seems to me that if Tech people are so afraid of their precious hardware that it would make sense to create 2 different ones - a "secure network" for things that need protection (files, permanent records, grades, and junk like that), and an educational network that if a virus entered, it would mean a day or two of down time to blow away the system and rebuild. No information that is important would be lost, because student work would be saved in online storage, and important system documents would not be a part of the educational network.

Of course, we could also use Macs and not have to worry so much about our network breaches and concentrate on productivity.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

DPS Making Progress

I looked at the new DPS website last week as I was updating links. There is a new look (blog-like appearance), and it is nice to see we are trying to be less static (i.e. boring). We have 5 videos on our home page. I recognize our own Mrs. Johnson narrating in most of the videos. It is refreshing, and perhaps we may be moving forward in our use of technology for communication.

I've said it so many times I tell myself to shut up, but "It's not about the technology. It is about what the technology allows us to do." The movies are embedded in a flash file, and we probably paid a lot of money to have them edited, not knowing how easy it is to do. We are storing the files on servers we pay for, I'm sure. But we are getting closer. The tough jump will be when we allow our students to create videos and put them online to demonstrate their understanding of curriculum requirements. We've had enough static communication methodology (essays, powerpoints, and posterboards). There is nothing special about shooting video. There is nothing difficult in editing video (iMovie for the Mac and Movie Maker for Windows), the only thing that is difficult is time. Students will take the time for this kind of work...I know first hand.

For this shift to happen, our system must:
  • get beyond the idea that the only way to assess students is through tests and paper-based products. This is a teacher training not associated with UbD.
  • provide video editing labs that include digital cameras, computer hardware, and instruction for the students. Instruction won't take long to learn. It's not necessary to master video production, just some simple concepts. It's not Hollywood.
  • and the difficult part...a change in policy! We currently "lead" with fear when it comes to the online world. We are either afraid of content online, or afraid our network can't handle the load. We block all streaming media sites because of the strain on the network. Dozens of free storage sites exist for video files, but they are blocked due to content fear. Or will it be okay for some to provide video but not for others?
We are moving in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go just to catch up. We still need our students writing and producing for a world audience in blogs, and not just completing fill-in-the-blank worksheets their teachers. We still need teachers collaborating online through wikis (a service our tech department was unfamiliar with when I mentioned it in a meeting this month - they thought wikipedia, and how bad it was - ay caramba) instead of creating islands of individualism. Blogs, wikis, Google video - all FREE, yet untapped as an educational tool that will and does engage students when the teachers understand that it is not about the technology, but what the technology can allow their students to do.

We need to quit making excuses as to why our computers and their security is more important that our students and their ability to function in the future.

It's good to see the Central Office videos, I just wish we could see our Media Center student booktalks on school computers. We have had over 2500 hits on Google Video, and under 10 have come from inside the school system (on school-based computers). Our audience is big, and the students are getting more concerned about content quality. If it is about the word I abhor - engagement - then our student booktalkers are -- engaged, reading, writing, and learning.

So congratulations to the CO for adding a modern element to their web page. I hope they have the signed permission forms from the parents of the students in the videos as is our system policy :^).

It's not about the technology, it's what the technology allows you to do.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Elephant Has Come Home to Roost

Milton Chen's second part of his article on Carol Dweck, et. al. came out a couple days ago. I commented on the first part earlier.

Chen interviewed Dweck through email, and asked what teachers and parents could do for their children. Dweck offered several suggestions. I want to focus on what I see as the real transformational piece of information: Convince the child that their brain is not finished making connections. This information has been around for a long time, because I have always chosen to work with middle school kids because I believe it is "our last, best chance to make a positive difference in the lives of kids" is how I have put it since the late 1980s before I was in education. I worked in ministry then, and the research (though I don't know who provided the research) then stated that the brain grows the fastest and makes more neurological connections from birth to two years. The brain never again makes as many new connections as the first 3 years of life, but the years of a child's pre-adolescence present the second-best time for new connections in the brain to be made.

Our nation spends millions on pre-K, nursery school, and commercials telling parents how important it is to read to kids. We have had Pampers provide classical music CDs in their packages. But of all kids, who are the ones who receive the least attention? The middle school child. They are Jan Brady, caught in the middle of the all-important SAT high schoolers, and "let's do it for the children" elementary kids. But, the brain makes the greatest and most new connections from 0-3 years old and 11-14 years old (give or take a year or two).

The 11-14 year olds are the kids with whom no one wants to attach themselves. As a group, they are rebellious, ungrateful, and seeking independence and identity. Who wants to help this kind of kid? Not many...not enough. I look forward to reading Dweck's work to see what she offers for the kid in the middle.

Chen provides the resources:
The results of their study are being published in a Child Development article titled "Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention." Dweck also wrote a book last year called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Unintentional Learning

Yesterday I attended the Dalton State College ETTC Spring Consortium. In the afternoon session we conducted a 2-hour Whale Done! activity. This is among the newest resources from Ken Blanchard. The basic ideas are taken from the killer whale trainers at Sea World. It is about developing good relationships with co-workers in order to achieve high productivity and satisfaction. The three main concepts: 1) develop trust, 2) accentuate the positive, 3) redirect wrong behavior. It's really nothing earth-shattering or different from the One-Minute Manager from a generation ago, but the whales make it more fun to learn.

Well, yesterday I learned what I was supposed to learn (it was really just reinforced-but still good). I also had one of those AHA moments. It has led me to a paradigm shift of thinking, and I hope I can communicate it well here.

In education (generally speaking) we identify problems only when student test scores are not where we want them. This is the driving piece of decision-making. To make it easy, I think we rightly ask, "How can we increase student test scores, the primary indicator we choose to use, so we can verify student achievement? What can we do to help the student?"

I do not have any problems with these questions, once I accept that testing is the only proof that is acceptable in our current arrangement. We identify the problem (or area of improvement). It looks like this: Problem = Low Student Test Scores.

Here's where my epiphany arrived. In Whale Done!, and most management guru books, when the behavior is not what is wanted, those with the "bad behavior" are the ones who recieve the redirection. EX: When the whale went left after being told to go right, the trainer did not acknowledge the wrong behavior, but redirected the whale with more interaction to go in the correct direction -- then the correct behavior was reinforced with a back rub or bucket of fish. It was the whale's behavior that was wrong, so the whale is who was retrained.

In education, when the student scores are too low, we focus on the teacher by retraining them and offering "new" methods of teaching classes (they've had at least five in getting the degree). How many different ways are there to develop inconsequential lesson plans? The original plans may not be the problem. The redirection is the problem. Teachers teach, students fail, so teach them more of the same in the same way...what's up with that!?

Why don't we realize that the "unacceptable behavior" is the behavior of the STUDENT, not the teacher. Blaming the teacher is too easy, and we shouldn't take it anymore. [The scene in Network flashes in my mind.]

In the whale training situation it works like this:
  • Unacceptable behavior - whale goes in wrong direction
  • Initial reaction - trainer does not acknowledge whale's incorrect behavior
  • Redirection - trainer immediately becomes more "hands-on" with whale to get the correct behavior
  • Acceptable behavior - whale goes in right direction
  • Reaction - trainer acknowledges whale with personal interaction (back rub, fish, etc.)
  • Repeat acceptable behavior - habit is formed and behavior is frequently revisited to make sure it sticks
In education it works like this:
  • Unacceptable behavior - student(s) score too low on high-stakes, standardized test
  • Initial reaction - months go by until results are received so there is no initial reaction
  • Redirection - student(s) are in next year of school, and have forgotten their original behavior. There is no redirection to the one with the "unacceptable behavior." In the interim, teachers are targeted for retraining by doing the same thing with a different name [new program].
  • Acceptable behavior - students are never given the opportunity to be immediately redirected, so they are unsure of what to do to achieve acceptable behavior status. They become frustrated, and continue to underperform.
  • Reaction - teachers don't know if they are encouraging the correct behavior or not in their students. We can only encourage effort not acceptable behavior.
Some will say, we need more tests then. No, we need results immediately, not during the summer, when student accountability is lost. We have the technology to do this. Good night, if we can vote for the President of the United States on a touch-screen computer, and have results within a day or two, we can definitely have tests on the same touch screens! If these money-grabbing testing companies want to stay in business, then by golly provide the touch screens for schools. The cost would be a wash in a few years when there was nothing to print. Editing and implementation would be instant. And, for those who believe scientist Al Gore, this would also reduce Carbon Dioxide levels because we save more trees, thus helping the global warming issue (if you believe in such a thing).

At this point, here is what we are doing:
  • Students commit bad behavior, teacher is retrained.
  • Students commit bad behavior, administrator jobs are at risk.
  • Students commit bad behavior, student avoids any redirection efforts.
Why should whales get better attention than our kids? I still believe our kids want to do well, they have just been trained to repeat unacceptable behavior under our current methodology of test result reporting. Unfortunately, I don't think educated people (politicians or DOEs) will change their behavior to correct the problem. Almost makes one wonder if these people really want the "problem" corrected.

Where is there more money to be made and power to be brokered?
  • If all children make it, none are left behind, and schools can teach the children of their community...
  • OR if many children don't make it, appear to be left behind, and government-selected consultants come in to "save the day" with a rehashed bag of tricks?
I think I'll call that my "inconvenient truth."

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How Do You Test An Elephant?

No, the answer is not carefully. The response is, "Why would you test an elephant?" There may be sound reasons to test elephants for disease, scientific research, or perhaps some other necessary purpose. But...why?

Over the past couple of years, Edutopia (a publication of the George Lucas Foundation) has become one of my favorite magazines to read. Ironically, it is because I find myself in disagreement with some of the thoughts spewed forth. But that's why I like it...it makes me think. Now I do not always disagree with the contents either. It presents material that is worthy of thought, and I guess that is why I enjoy the magazine. AND, it's free to educators. Thank you Star Wars.

In a February 28, 2007 article, Don't Weigh the Elephant - Feed the Elephant, Milton Chen refers to some new work conducted by Carol Dweck of Stanford, Lisa Blackwell of Columbia, and Kali Trzesniewski of Stanford. Their work is published in Child Development and was recently featured on NPR. These credentials mean something to most people, but surely someone has completed some research indicating that research can support anything.

Anyway, Chen reports a couple of interesting things:
  • Dweck's study suggests that teaching kids (especially in the middle school years) that their brains are constantly making new neurological connections as they make their brains work, these students are more likely to become successful in their studies, no matter what the subject, but especially in math. Students focus on their brains growing instead of learning the material. Another metacognitive theory in the making?
  • In a separate story, used as his introduction, Chen tells of a colleague who was in India and after a brief discussion on national testing in the U.S., the Indian educator replied, "Here, when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don't weigh the elephant."
So I have some reactions. First, the elephant analogy, while interesting falls short for me. Come on India - go further! I am seeing...
  • elephant = American students
  • weighing = testing
  • feeding = curriculum
Our students being the elephants is fine with me.

Weighing our students is testing our students. The Indian educator suggests that weighing the elephant isn't necessary. I'm one of the cynics who thinks testing is more about money for test publishers, and power for politicians, and little else. But, I still think if the elephant is being fed but appears to not be gaining weight, the first step in diagnosis can be weighing it to get a baseline. If it is underweight, then dietary supplements can be used to see what helps the elephant grow. If one thing doesn't work, then you try something different. But how do you know if the elephant has gained weight from the supplement without weighing it in the future? So we are still stuck with testing. Weighing is not equal to testing in the U.S.: it is a tool (however faulty) to determine if weight has been gained.

Feeding, or food, is the curriculum, I suppose. This is the debate point! Perhaps Chen will conquer this in his next article. At this point the only thing I see that he points to is Dweck's metacognitive philosophy. The curriculum will not matter much, because if students focus on their new neuron sparks they make while trying to learn even the boring stuff, they will learn even the boring stuff, because they imagine their brains growing. The results in the article were too short term for me. Even I can influence (bribe) a kid to learn something for a single test.
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Dweck's study has me concerned for one reason. The fact that it is quickly revealed that math scores are the area impacted most raises a red flag to me. We are so math-centric in our country right now, that if a new study does not increase math scores it is nothing more than a fringe report. I find extreme brain activity in the process of writing; more than I ever would trying to learn math. I am constantly bringing together thoughts that seem disconnected to most people in order to make meaning of the things I observe. I think I still make a few new connections each year, but never from math.

Increase Math Scores is the key phrase to gain attention for "new" research. So I'm a bit skeptical at this early stage.

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Scattered Ramblings:

Elephants are herbivores--big herbivores, but I would like to think our kids could get more selection from curriculum than a pre-meal salad. Where's the meat & potatoes?

We are still stuck in the "smart kids know answers" mode, instead of the "smart kids know how to ask questions, and where to find answers." We are not producing life-long learners, nor is that truly our goal in the U.S. We are, however, creating kids who will be able to compete in any number of trivia games...maybe as early as 5th grade!
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So, why would you test an elephant? Not to help it grow, but determine if it has grown at a healthy rate. My concern is once we determine that the elephant isn't growing, what new food will we provide? If we continue to feed it what did not help it grow, why would we continue to feed it food that will not make it grow?

Will the new food be nothing more than metacognitive philosophy that most of the teachers will not understand? No disrespect intended, but metacognition is not a hot elective for education courses in undergrad, and it is a little deeper than any continuing education course will handle.

See, I told you Edutopia makes me think!

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